President Obama on Wednesday reaffirmed his pledge not to send combat forces into the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State group, telling troops that he will "not commit you fighting another ground war in Iraq."
A day after the nation's top military officer suggested on Capitol Hill that U.S. ground troops could become involved directly in the battle, Obama sought to close the door on that option during a speech at MacDill Air Force Base outside Tampa.
"One thing we have learned over the last decade is that America can make a decisive difference," Obama told 1,200 military leaders and service personnel from several branches of the Armed Forces. "But American forces in Iraq will not have a combat mission. They will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country."
Obama's remarks came after he toured the U.S. Central Command, which is overseeing the military campaign in the Middle East, and met with commanders and service members there. His visit offered him the chance to deliver a pep talk to the troops -- and to define for the American public the scope of the nation's return to the battlefield in Iraq and expansion into Syria.
A series of polls have found that Obama's approval ratings on foreign policy are near all-time lows. According to a CBS News-New York Times survey out Wednesday just 31 percent of Americans believe he is being tough enough on the Islamic State, despite a prime-time address last week outlining a strategy that involves U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and the training of moderate Syrian rebels to help win combat gains on the ground. Congress is likely to begin voting today on his proposal to fund that training.
In his address to the troops, Obama detailed gains in the fight against Islamic militants, including the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden and the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which will come to a close at the end of the year with just 9,800 troops remaining in that country in a support and training mission. But the president emphasized that the "threat and challenges to America" is not over, and he sounded a tough tone against the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations.
"We mean what we say. Our reach is long. If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven," Obama said. "We will find you eventually," he added to cheers from the troops, though he emphasized that he is building a coalition of international and regional partners, including some Arab nations.
"This is not and will not be America's fight alone," he said.
A day after he announced a plan to send up to 3,000 U.S. troops to West Africa to help coordinate a ramped up response to the Ebola outbreak in several countries, Obama emphasized that the U.S. maintains a leadership role across the globe and is willing to answer the call.
"If there is some sort of crisis, when the world is threatened, when the world needs help, it calls on America," the president said. "Even the countries that complain about America, who do they call? They call on us."